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CA - Opinion: California Needs a More Flexible Approach for Planning for Sea Level Rise Across the State

The state of California has changed its sea level rise guidance for state agencies and coastal communities, now advising in new “Principles for Aligned State Action” that Californians employ a single sea level rise target — plan for 3.5 feet by 2050 — as opposed to the more flexible approach the state used in the past.

But this single sea level rise number does not represent the best available science and could make California less resilient to climate change.

At the same time, the Biden administration has made climate a key priority, offering California a golden opportunity to advance its own goals while supporting climate change efforts nationwide. The shift on sea level rise guidance could weaken California’s leadership role in demonstrating best practices for the nation.

To be sure, it’s easy to understand the state’s desire to represent the sea level rise challenge with the single 3.5-foot number. A clear and bracing target may spur needed action. Rising seas create significant risk to the health, safety and economic vitality of California’s coast communities, and we must prepare.

So why a more flexible approach? First, a target of 3.5 feet by 2050 does not represent the best available science. Just two years ago, the state of California established guidance projecting seas would rise between 8 inches and 2.6 feet in Los Angeles by 2050. A recent report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change found the likely range was between 1.5 and 2.8 feet globally — but for the year 2100, not 2050. The state explains that communities should plan for 2100 impacts by 2050 to provide a 50-year margin of safety.

While helpful in some cases, there are approaches that would reduce risk more effectively than this simple formulation in many coastal communities.

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